Single guests staying at the hotel depicted in “The Lobster” have three options: They can try to find a life partner within 45 days, run away to the city and try to survive as a part of a sham relationship or on their own, or live as Loners in the forest. The second two options are dangerous and lead to violent punishment. But anyone who fails in their endeavors in the first option is turned — literally transformed (this is not a metaphor) — into an animal.

The film’s protagonist, David (Colin Farrell, “Winter’s Tale”), is packed off to the hotel after his divorce, with his brother (a dog) at his knees. He soon learns the bizarre workings of the hotel. Masturbation is illegal and punishable, but male guests are sexually stimulated by a hotel maid as it makes finding a mate easier — there’s no indication that women are given the same treatment, but whether that stems from a lack of recognition of female desire or something else is up to the viewer.

Couples are most believable if they have a distinct trait in common, like a propensity for random nosebleeds. So when faced with a looming countdown to a transformation, guests get creative in their attempts to hasten a match with each other. Desperate deception abounds.

Other than faking a good match, there is only one way for them to put off the date of their transformation. Every guest at the hotel is given a tranquilizer gun and sent into the forest to try to capture Loners; for each Loner that a guest captures, they receive an extra day to find if not true love, something that will convince the miserable but powerful patrons of the hotel.

David casts his lot in with the Loners, and his life is then shaped by two different women. The leader (Léa Seydoux, “Blue is the Warmest Color”) is shrewd and unforgiving; she allows masturbation but no romantic or erotic attachments. The other, the Short Sighted Woman, (Rachel Weisz, “The Constant Gardener”) is the only person in the film who seems capable of true lightness and laughter. She’s drawn to David, and he to her, but they tread carefully — until they don’t, and are punished by the Loner Leader. While Farrell and Weisz stand out in how well matched they are, their acting styles offsetting each other perfectly, the rest of the cast strongly supports them.

The characters in “The Lobster” would seem brain-washed if it weren’t for the flickers of color that sporadically stab through the bleak gray fabric of the film. If happiness is still a sensational possibility in this world — a debatable point — it comes only in brief flashes, in the ghost of a joke or the glimmer of a smile. It’s no coincidence that it’s usually in the Short Sighted Woman’s vicinity.

“The Lobster” is funny because it’s clever, but you’re too busy holding your breath to laugh. Though the pace of the world is a steady, almost hopeless beat, it’s unpredictable in its moments of passionless cruelty or timid, half-hearted bravery. It ends with a question; it asks audiences how much they believe in love, and, if not love, then how much they believe in basic human decency. It’s almost too frightening how absurd yet close to home the parameters of this story are.


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